Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY WE left U.S Army General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa poised for interaction in a border squabble. Today, we see how aeroplanes played a role, albeit not very decisively. A recurring character is another Mexican revolutionary, eventually president, Alvaro Obregón.

Left to right, Alvaro Obregón, Pancho Villa, and “Black Jack” Pershing, apparently in better times, 1913, Fort Bliss, Texas.

The Pancho Villa Expedition, led by “Black Jack” Pershing took place in Chuhuahua, Mexico, from March 14, 1916, to February 7, 1917. If the U.S. Army’s primary mission was to capture Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, then the expedition failed. If it was to benefit rival revolutionary Venustiano Carranza, it failed as well: By the time the dust settled, Carranza’s forces were fighting U.S. troops because of their incursion into Mexico.

Though Pershing publicly declared the mission a success, he wrote privately, “Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr [sic] with its tail between its legs.”

“I’ve Had About Enough of This,” says Uncle Sam in a 1916 cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman. This and the following images from Aeroplane Scrap Book Number 3.

On the other hand, Pershing defeated Pancho Villa’s forces and also employed U.S. aviation in an international dispute for only the second time, both incidents involving Mexico.

The First Aero Squadron involvement is detailed in Aeroplane (or Flying Machine) Scrap Book Number 3: 1911-1941, Hatfield History of Aeronautics, Northrup University Press, 1975. The tactical justification for using aeroplanes was sound: A contemporary source noted, “Only aviators can scout over Mexican territory with little danger…. To surrender to Villa, however, would be worse than suicide.”

We learned yesterday of Pancho Villa’s animosity for rival revolutionary Venustiano Carranza. Imagine Villa’s opinion that W. Leonard Bonney, the former commander of Carranza’s aviation forces, had been put in charge of mobilizing the U.S. aviators.

A Curtiss biplane, part of the First Aero Squadron, at Casas Grandes, 1916.

According to Aeroplane Scrap Book Number 3, Curtiss JN-2s (predecessors of the Curtiss Jenny) were used initially by the U.S. Army First Aero Squadron. However, their 90-hp engines proved unsatisfactory: These JN-2s “could not climb fast enough in case of emergency, the Mexican atmosphere being so rare as to require high-powered aeroplanes for safe flying.” Subsequently, the expedition employed 200-hp Curtiss R-4s.

Members of the First Aero Squadron that saw service in Mexico, 1916.

A contemporary analysis suggested, “A hundred aeroplanes could easily round up Villa and his band in a very short time, where it might take thousands of men a long time, with considerable losses, to attain the same end.” The Pershing expedition had eight aeroplanes.

Pershing’s eight aeroplanes likely prompted this New York Herald cartoon.

Pancho Villa managed to evade the Pershing expedition. Alas, in 1923, he was assassinated, likely on the order of then President Alvaro Obregón. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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